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U.S. Commission Says Russia, Pakistan Among Worst Violators Of Religious Freedom

Crimean Tatars pray inside a mosque during the Eid al-Adha festival in Crimea. The annexed Ukrainian peninsula has been referenced in a new report on religious freedom that criticizes Russia's "repressive policies" toward people of certain faiths.

A U.S. government commission on religious freedom is recommending that Russia be designated as a "country of particular concern" (CPC), putting it in a group of the world's worst offenders of basic rights on religious worship.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in its annual report on April 26 that it is, for the first time, recommending Russia be recognized as an offender along with 15 other countries.

The commission said Russia is unique among the countries in its report because it is the only state that "not only continually intensified its repression of religious freedom" but also "expanded its repressive policies to the territory of a neighboring state," a reference to Moscow's illegal annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

The report also cited a 2016 law that it said "effectively criminalized all private religious speech not sanctioned by the state."

Known as "Yarovaya's Law," the legislation tightens restrictions on the activities of religious groups -- particularly smaller denominations such as the Mormons and some Christian evangelical sects.

It also noted a Russian Supreme Court ruling earlier in April that imposed a nationwide ban against the Jehovah's Witnesses.

WATCH: Jehovah's Witnesses Fight Russian Ban

Jehovah's Witnesses Fight Russian Ban
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USCIRF Chairman Thomas Reese said the United States needs to "send a clear message to Russia that we will not tolerate its continued campaign of attack and intimidation against freedom or religion and beliefs."

The commission also recommended that Pakistan be named a CPC, as it had done in 2016 when then-Secretary of State John Kerry rejected the recommendation.

Pakistan has been selected by the commission for offender status each year since 2002, but the State Department has rejected the recommendation every time.

The latest commission report said Pakistan’s government has "continued to perpetrate and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations."

It also cited "discriminatory constitutional provisions and legislation, such as the country's blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiya laws" which it says still result in believers being prosecuted and imprisoned.

There are currently 10 countries designated by the United States as the world's worst offenders of religious freedom: Burma (aka Myanmar), China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

The commission has recommended that along with Russia and Pakistan, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Syria, and Vietnam be added to the CPC list.

Reese said in the 2017 annual report that international religious freedom "is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations."

At an April 26 press conference in Washington D.C., Reese was particularly critical of Russia -- calling the ban against Jehovah's Witnesses a "very serious violation" of religious freedom.

"It is banning a religion throughout the country; it is going to be confiscating their property [and] basically declaring them outlaws," said Reese, a Jesuit cleric. "We do not feel that religious freedom is respected when a government decides who can be a religion and can't be a religion.... We believe that people should have the right to believe what they want...and to assemble as believers and worship together."

Reese also said the commission is not only worried about the judgment against the Jehovah's Witnesses.

"We are also very concerned about what is happening in terms of religious freedom in Ukraine, where Russia has invaded a country illegally and occupied it, and is now imposing its religious restrictions, it's very tough registration laws, on the religions in the Crimea," Reese said.

He cited the Crimean Tatars as being the hardest hit by representatives of Russia in Crimea, but noted that the Ukrainian Catholic Church has also experienced problems and that Russians "are not allowing them to practice their religion."

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be responsible for determining whether to add Russia and the other five recommended states recommended to the list of countries "of particular concern."

Once added, the law states that U.S. officials must seek to hold negotiations with authorities from the offending countries and to come up with ways to resolve the complaints regarding violations of religious freedom.

A failure to come up with such resolutions is supposed to result in the imposition of sanctions.

For the first time, the U.S. freedom or religion commission designated nonstate entities as "entities of particular concern," or EPCs.

Reese said the commission was recommending that Islamic State (IS) extremists in Syria and Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Al-Shabaab in Somalia be the first such designated entities.

The USCIRF is a bipartisan U.S. federal government commission made of nine commissioners and headed by Reese -- a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter.

The commission was created by Congress in 1998 and issues an annual report each year, making recommendations and giving advice to the president, Congress, and the State Department on which countries are the worst violators of freedom of religion and beliefs.

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Rights Group Says At Least 185 Arrested In Iran's Zahedan In Past Month

Demonstrators rally in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan and Baluchistan Province, where people have been holding protest rallies every Friday since September 30.

A rights group says at least 185 citizens in the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan have been arrested in the past month by security forces trying to stifle widespread dissent.

Haalvsh, a group that monitors rights violations of the Sunni minority in Iran, says that it has been able to verify the identity of 125 of the detainees, but added that, due Internet disruptioand repeated threats to families by the security authorities, the number of detainees is estimated at 185 or even higher.

People in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, which borders Afghanistan and Pakistan, have been holding protest rallies every Friday since September 30, when a demonstration turned deadly as security forces of the Islamic republic cracked down hard on demonstrators.

During the so-called Bloody Friday massacre in Zahedan, almost 100 people were killed and hundreds injured by security forces during unrest sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was in police custody for allegedly wearing her head scarf improperly.

The protests grew even larger following the news of the alleged sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl by the Chabahar police commander.

On January 31, the Baloch Activists Campaign reported that plainclothes security officers arrested two Baluch youths in Zahedan and took them to an unknown location. The campaign has identified the pair as Dawood Rakhshani and Akbar Gorgij.

Anger over Amini's death on September 16 has prompted thousands of Iranians to take to the streets nationwide to demand more freedoms and women's rights. The widespread unrest represents the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

The U.S.-based Human Rights Activists News Agency said that, as of January 29, at least 527 people had been killed during the unrest, including 71 minors, as security forces muzzle dissent.

Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the population in Sistan-Baluchistan Province in southeastern Iran, but only account for about 10 percent of the population in Shi'a-dominated Iran overall.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Iranian Filmmaker Panahi On Hunger Strike To Protest 'Inhumane' Judiciary

Award-winning Iranian director Jafar Panahi (file photo)

Imprisoned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has gone on hunger strike to protest “the illegal and inhumane behavior" of Iran's judiciary and security apparatus, which have led a brutal and sometimes deadly crackdown on unrest over the death of a young woman while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.

"I will refuse to eat and drink any food and medicine until the time of my release. I will remain in this state until perhaps my lifeless body is freed from prison," the director said in a statement released by his wife, Tahereh Saeedi, and his son, Panah Panahi, on their Instagram accounts.

Panahi, 62, was arrested in July as the authorities cracked down on dissent in response to growing antiestablishment sentiment and near-daily protests over living conditions and graft across the Islamic republic.

Just days prior to his arrest, Panahi had joined a group of more than 300 Iranian filmmakers in publishing an open letter calling on the security forces to "lay down arms" in the face of public outrage over "corruption, theft, inefficiency, and repression" following the violent crackdown against those protesting a building collapse in May in the southwestern city of Abadan, which killed 41 people.

Those protests were overtaken by a wave of unrest following the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in custody for allegedly violating the country's head-scarf law.

Since the start of daily protests that have rocked Iran since Amini's death, several Iranian filmmakers and prominent public figures have been summoned or arrested by the authorities, including the popular actress Taraneh Alidoosti.

Since Amini's death, more than 500 people have been killed in the police crackdown, according to rights groups. Several thousand more have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Eight Dead In Construction Site Fire In Crimea, Says Russian-Installed Governor

Firefighters battle a deadly blaze at an accommodation facility for construction workers in Crimea on February 2.

At least eight people died in the Crimean city of Sevastopol after an overnight fire in construction workers' temporary accommodation, Russian officials said on February 2. Mikhail Razvozhayev, the Moscow-appointed governor of Sevastopol, home to the Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet, said the fire had broken out in a dormitory for workers building the Tavrida Highway, a new road linking the cities of Sevastopol and Simferopol. Russia's Emergencies Ministry said eight people had died and two were injured. Moscow seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and unilaterally annexed it. Kyiv has said it plans to retake the peninsula by force. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Bulgarian President Dissolves Parliament, Sets Early Elections For April 2

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev (file photo)

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev has signed a decree dissolving the parliament and setting April 2 as the date for early elections -- the country's fifth in two years -- after an inconclusive October vote failed to produce a government.

Radev on February 2 also reappointed Galab Donev as caretaker prime minister for the interim period.

The composition of the caretaker government remained almost unchanged, with the exception of outgoing Culture Minister Velislav Minekov, who has been replaced by conductor Nayden Todorov.

Radev had already announced early elections would be needed after Bulgaria's Socialist Party (BSP) said on January 24 that it had failed to form a government and had returned the unfulfilled mandate to the president.

It was the third and final opportunity for a government to be formed under the current legislature, which resulted from the October 2 elections.

Before the socialists' attempt at forming a coalition, the two strongest groups in Bulgaria’s parliament -- the center-right GERB party and the reformist We Continue The Change party, which finished first and second in the October voting -- had each tried and failed to find enough support to form their own governments.

Radev then chose the BSP to fulfill the mandate.

Under the Bulgarian Constitution, Radev was obliged to disband parliament and schedule elections within 60 days of issuing the dissolution decree.

The GERB party of Boyko Borisov, who spent three divisive tenures as prime minister between 2009 and 2021, has been the target of widespread corruption accusations, and most groups have dismissed talk of cooperation with Borisov.

The continuing political crisis is expected to impede the European Union's poorest country's plans to join the euro zone at the end of this year, as well as the timely receipt of billions of euros in EU recovery funds.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters

France Seizes Iran Assault Rifles, Missiles Heading To Yemen

Assault rifles and missiles seized by the French Navy lie on the deck of a ship at an undisclosed location on February 1.

French naval forces in January seized thousands of assault rifles, machine guns and anti-tank missiles in the Gulf of Oman coming from Iran and heading to Yemen's Huthi rebels, officials said on February 2, the latest such seizure amid the Middle Eastern nation’s long-running civil war. While Iran denied being involved, images of the weapons released by the U.S. military's Central Command showed them to be similar to others captured by American forces in other shipments linked to Tehran. The seizure occurred on January 15. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Austria Expels Four Russian Diplomats

The Russian Embassy in Vienna (file photo)

The Austrian Foreign Ministry has announced the expulsion of four Russian diplomats for what it said were actions incompatible with their diplomatic status, adding that they must leave the country by February 8. The ministry said in a statement on February 2 that two diplomats worked at the Russian Embassy while the other two were members of Russia's mission to the United Nations in Vienna. No further details were given. There was no immediate reaction from Moscow. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Pakistan Says Peshawar Mosque Bomber Wore Police Uniform, Breached Security On Motorbike

The bombing at a mosque in Peshawar on January 30 was the deadliest to hit the northwestern Pakistani city in a decade.

The suicide bomber who killed more than 100 people at a mosque in a police compound in Peshawar this week wore a police uniform and entered the high-security area on a motorbike, a Pakistani provincial police chief said. The bomber behind the attack has been identified as a member of a militant network, the police chief of Khyber Pashtunkhwa Province, Moazzam Jah Ansari, told reporters without giving further details. The bombing was the deadliest in a decade to hit Peshawar, a northwestern city that has suffered decades of Islamist militant violence. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Updated

EU Says It Will Slap Russia With More Sanctions By War Anniversary

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (center left) meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (center right) in Kyiv on February 2.

The European Union says it plans to hit Russia with a fresh package of punitive measures -- the 10th since the start of its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine almost one year ago -- as the bloc prepares to hold a summit with Ukraine's leadership in the capital, Kyiv.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and a team of 15 commissioners arrived in Kyiv on February 2 for the first-ever joint meeting with Ukraine's government, with Russia's invasion, launched on February 24 last year, and Ukraine's bid for membership to the bloc on the agenda.

Speaking at a joint news conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy after their meeting, von der Leyen said that sanctions have been exacting a heavy price on Moscow, "throwing it back by a generation," with the EU price cap on oil alone making Russia lose some 160 million euros ($176 million) daily.

Responding to a remark by Zelenskiy, who said Kyiv hopes the bloc's sanctions campaign will gain momentum again after appearing to have "slightly slowed down" recently, von der Leyen said the EU would "introduce with our G7 partners an additional price cap on Russian petroleum products, and by the 24th of February -- exactly one year since the invasion started -- we aim to have the 10th package of sanctions in place."

Von der Leyen also commended the Ukrainian government for taking swift action against corruption -- one of the main conditions advanced by Brussels as mandatory for Kyiv's progress on its path to eventual EU membership.

Ukraine was granted candidate status for membership in the 27-member bloc in June, and Zelenskiy has pledged to root out entrenched corruption that has weakened the effectiveness of state institutions even as the country faced an increasingly aggressive Russia since 2014, culminating in Moscow's unprovoked full-scale invasion.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's ongoing invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

Von der Leyen's visit comes a day after several high-ranking officials' homes were raided by anti-corruption agents in a second sweep in a week.

"Your determination to join the European Union is impressive," von der Leyen said.

"I'm comforted to see that your anti-corruption bodies are on alert and effective in detecting corruption cases...I also commend you on reacting so rapidly at the political level to make sure that the fight against corruption is delivering tangible results and is further stepped up," she added.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi are among the members of the delegation to arrive in Kyiv on February 2.

"Arrived in Kyiv to convey EU’s strongest message of support to all Ukrainians defending their country,” Borrell wrote on Twitter, adding, "EU assistance has reached 50 billion euros [$55 billion] since the start of Russia’s war. Europe stood united with Ukraine from day one. And will still stand with you to win and rebuild."

"The meeting will be an opportunity to exchange on the many areas of cooperation between the EU and Ukraine," a commission statement said, calling the event a "strong symbol" of EU support for Ukraine "in the face of Russia's unprovoked and unjustified aggression."

European Council President Charles Michel will arrive for a summit meeting on February 3.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal has called the meetings "two extremely important events" for his country's European integration.

With reporting by AFP and AP

Iran Blames Israel For Isfahan Drone Attack, Vows Revenge

Eyewitness footage purportedly showing the moment of the explosion at a military industry factory in Isfahan, Iran.

Iran blames Israel for a drone attack on a military factory near the central city of Isfahan, the semiofficial ISNA news agency said on February 2, vowing revenge. In a letter to the UN chief, Iran's UN envoy, Amir Saeid Iravani, said a primary investigation suggested Israel was responsible for the attack on January 28. The attack came amid tension between Iran and the West over Tehran's nuclear activity and its supply of arms -- including long-range "suicide drones"-- for Russia's war in Ukraine. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Pakistan Arrests Prominent Political Ally Of Ex-PM Imran Khan

Sheikh Rashid Ahmed served as interior minister in Imran Khan's government. (file photo)

Pakistani police arrested a prominent political figure in an overnight raid on his home near Islamabad, days after he accused the former president of the country of plotting to kill ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan, officials said on February 2. Police are expected to bring Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, who served as interior minister in Khan's government, before a judge to get permission to question him for any evidence supporting his allegation against former President Asif Ali Zardari. Islamabad police confirmed the arrest. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Russia Preparing Major Offensive, Ukrainian Military Says, As Shelling Kills Civilians In Kramatorsk

Ukrainian rescuers work at the site of a destroyed apartment building in Kramatorsk after it was hit by a Russian air strike on February 1.

Ukraine's military says there are clear signs that Russian forces are getting ready for a major push in the east, where a stalemate continues despite months-long heavy fighting and intensive daily shelling by Moscow's troops.

The shelling killed at least three people and wounded 20 others in Kramatorsk late on February 1. The head of the Donetsk regional military administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said a Russian rocket struck a residential building in Kramatorsk.

Ukrainian Rescuers Comb The Rubble As Missile Hits Apartments In Kramatorsk
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"The enemy is actively conducting reconnaissance, preparing for an offensive in certain directions," Ukraine's General Staff said in its daily report early on February 2.

"Despite heavy losses, it continues to attempt offensive actions in the Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiyivka, and Novopavlivka areas [of Donetsk region]," the General Staff said.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's ongoing invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

The focal point of the monthslong battle in Donetsk has been in and around Bakhmut, where Russian shelling killed at least five civilians and wounded 10 on January 31, Ukraine’s presidential office said.

Russian forces launched six missile strikes on Ukrainian targets during the past 24 hours, four of which hit the civilian infrastructure in Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, and Druzhkivka in Donetsk, as well as four air strikes and 73 salvoes from multiple rocket launchers, the military said.

The situation on the front line has become more difficult, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on February 1.

"A definite increase has been noted in the offensive operations of the occupiers on the front in the east of our country. The situation has become tougher," Zelenskiy said in his evening video address.

Zelenskiy said the Russians were trying to make gains that they could show on the first anniversary of the war on February 24.

The secretary of Ukraine's Security Council, Oleksiy Danilov, also warned that Russia was planning a major attack from multiple directions that could occur around the anniversary of the start of Russia's invasion.

"Russia is preparing for maximum escalation," Danilov told British TV station Sky News on January 31.

"It is gathering everything possible, doing drills and training."

Danilov said the next two or three months will be "the defining months in the war."

Frontline Videos Show Intense Battles In Eastern Ukraine
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Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov referred to a transfer of troops, saying Moscow could "try something" to mark the anniversary of the invasion.

Reznikov, speaking to French broadcaster BFM, said Russian troops are massing at the border and according to the Ukrainian military's assessment their number is more than the 300,000 called up in a mobilization in September.

Ukraine last week won pledges from the United States and Germany to send tanks to help it defend itself and has continued actively requesting more modern equipment, including fighter jets and long-range artillery, from its Western allies.

The United States has ruled out any deliveries of F-16 fighter jets for now, but other partners have indicated they are more open to the idea.

The Kremlin has warned that Western military shipments could cause an escalation in the conflict.


Russia also warned Israel against supplying weapons to Ukraine after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was considering doing so, including the so-called Iron Dome antimissile defense system.

Netanyahu also said he is ready to act as a mediator in negotiations between Russia and Ukraine if both sides and the United States agreed.

Israel, which has more than 1 million citizens from the former Soviet Union, has so far sought to maintain neutrality toward the conflict.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Netanyahu Open To Providing Military Aid To Ukraine, Including 'Iron Dome' Missile Defense System

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Israel does not reject sending military aid to Ukraine, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on February 1 in an interview with CNN. Netanyahu said he was "definitely considering" providing military support to Kyiv. He separately noted that Israel was ready to consider the delivery of the Iron Dome antimissile defense system to Ukraine. Netanyahu also said that he was ready to act as a mediator in negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, if both sides and the United States agreed. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, click here.

Bust Of Stalin Erected In Volgograd Ahead Of Putin Visit To Mark Anniversary Of WWII Victory

People take photos of a bust of Soviet leader Josef Stalin after it was unveiled in Volgograd in February 1.

A new bust of Soviet leader Josef Stalin has been unveiled in Volgograd ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the city on February 2, the 80th anniversary of the Soviet Army's victory over German forces in a key World War II battle in the city then known as Stalingrad.

The bust was unveiled on February 1 along with two others dedicated to Soviet commanders Georgy Zhukov and Aleksandr Vasilyevsky outside the Battle of Stalingrad Museum.

Putin is due to visit Volgograd on February 2 for anniversary celebrations at the Mamayev Kurgan memorial complex on the banks of the Volga River.

The Battle of Stalingrad, which ended on February 2, 1943, is estimated to have claimed 2 million casualties and is widely seen by historians as the point when invading Nazi German forces were forced onto the defensive.

The southern city went by the name Tsaritsyn until it was renamed Stalingrad in 1925. It became Volgograd in 1961, eight years after Stalin’s death and after his legacy fell out of favor.

Under Stalin, millions of Soviet citizens were killed, tortured, imprisoned, or exiled by the Soviet state. He also presided over a famine that killed millions in Ukraine and other Soviet states.

Nostalgia for Stalin and for the Soviet Union has flourished under Putin, who has sought to rehabilitate the communist dictator as the leader who not only fought off the Germans during WWII but also turned the U.S.S.R. into a world power.

There have been rumors on Telegram and other social media that during Putin’s visit a decision will be made to restore the name Stalingrad. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov earlier this week said he could not confirm anything when asked whether there were discussions in the Kremlin about the possibility of renaming the city, according to TASS.

Volgograd’s World War II veterans recently proposed renaming the city in memory of the Battle of Stalingrad. In response to their request, regional Governor Andrei Bocharov announced the creation of a civic council to study public opinion on the matter, TASS said.

During the unveiling ceremony of the bust of Stalin, an honor guard laid flowers at the three monuments. Honorary citizens of Volgograd and representatives of a youth movement, as well as veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, attended the ceremony, TASS reported.

The chairman of the Volgograd Regional Duma, Aleksandr Bloshkin, called Stalin, Zhukov, and Vasilevsky "the architects of the Stalingrad victory."

Bloshkin said that, while in “unfriendly countries” similar monuments are being removed and everything associated with Soviet soldiers is being destroyed, Russia is taking a different course “to preserve the memory of the Great Patriotic War.”

The new bust is the second of Stalin in the city. Members of the local Communist Party in December 2019 installed a sculpture dedicated to Stalin on the grounds of the party’s regional committee.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and TASS

Fierce Fighting In Eastern Ukraine Amid Signs Russia Plans War-Anniversary Offensive

A Ukrainian soldier walks near front line in the Donetsk region on February 1.

The situation on the front line in eastern Ukraine has become tougher, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on February 1 as Russian forces pressed ahead with efforts on the ground to capture towns and cities in the Donetsk region while continuing air strikes against other locations.

The General Staff of Ukraine's military said in its daily report early on February 1 that the enemy “has not paused its offensive actions in the Lyman and Bakhmut directions" in the eastern region of Donetsk.

Russia also kept pressing its attacks on the town of Vuhledar, some 150 kilometers southeast of the fighting in and around Bakhmut, which has been the focal point of the monthslong battle in Donetsk.

"A definite increase has been noted in the offensive operations of the occupiers on the front in the east of our country. The situation has become tougher," Zelenskiy said in his evening video address.

Zelenskiy said the Russians were trying to make gains that they could show on the first anniversary of the war on February 24.

The fighting killed at least two people and wounded seven others in Kramatorsk. The head of the Donetsk regional military administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said a Russian rocket struck a residential building in Kramatorsk late on February 1.

Russian shelling of Bakhmut killed at least five civilians and wounded 10 on January 31, Ukraine’s presidential office said. Kyrylenko posted images of the shelling aftermath showing huge holes in residential buildings and saying that Russia is “actively deploying new military personnel.”

Moscow-installed authorities in Donetsk claimed Russian troops are “closing the ring” around Bakhmut, but the Kremlin-controlled paramilitary Wagner Group denied that Bakhmut was encircled.

The governor of the northern Chernihiv region, Vyacheslav Chaus, said four local residents died in the basement of a private house due to shelling by Russian troops on February 1. One person was injured and taken to a medical facility, Chaus said on Telegram.

The northern command of the Ukrainian military reported that Russian troops continued to shell border settlements in the Sumy and Chernihiv regions.

It was not possible to verify battlefield claims.

Serhiy Hayday, the regional governor in Ukraine's Luhansk region, said earlier that Moscow's forces were expelling residents near occupied parts of the front line so they can't disclose Russian troop deployments to Ukrainian artillery forces.

“There is an active transfer of [Russian troops] to the region and they are definitely preparing for something on the eastern front in February,” Hayday said.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov referred to a transfer of troops, saying Moscow could "try something" to mark the anniversary of the invasion last year. Reznikov, speaking to French broadcaster BFM, said Russian troops are massing at the border and, according to the Ukrainian military's assessment, their number is more than the 300,000 called up in a mobilization in September.

Ukraine last week won pledges from the United States and Germany to send tanks to help it defend itself and has continued actively requesting more modern equipment, including fighter jets and long-range artillery, from its Western allies. The United States has ruled out any deliveries of F-16 fighter jets for now, but other partners have indicated they are more open to the idea.

The Kremlin has warned that Western military shipments could cause an escalation in the conflict.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova reiterated that Russia will consider all weapons supplied by other countries “to be legitimate targets for Russia's armed forces."

Russia also warned Israel against supplying weapons to Ukraine after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was considering doing so, including the so-called Iron Dome anti-missile defense system.

Netanyahu also said he is ready to act as a mediator in negotiations between Russia and Ukraine if both sides and the United States agreed.

Since the beginning of the Russian offensive last year, Israel has sought to maintain neutrality by adopting a cautious position toward Moscow. Israel has emphasized that it has more than a million citizens from the former Soviet Union living in Israel.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Ukraine Lawmaker Calls On U.S. To Target China, India Energy Purchases From Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2014

A senior Ukrainian lawmaker has called for the United States to impose secondary sanctions on China and India if they keep buying Russian energy. Oleksandr Merezhko said he has faced criticism at home that a tougher stance on oil purchases could push China to step up support to Russia. Speaking on February 1 during a visit to Washington, he said this is not the problem because “China is not afraid of Ukraine. China is afraid of American sanctions." This means the United States can deter China from helping Russia by introducing secondary sanctions to stop China from financing the Russian economy and military machine.

Police Officers In Peshawar Demonstrate To Demand Thorough Investigation Of Mosque Bombing

The police who protested on February 1 gathered in front of the Peshawar Journalists' Center and were joined by civil and political activists. 

Dozens of police officers protested in Peshawar on February 1 to demand the government conduct a full and transparent investigation of a suicide attack on a mosque earlier this week that killed 101 people and injured 221 others.

The attack on January 30 killed mostly police officers in the Sunni mosque located inside a high-security police facility.

The police who protested on February 1 gathered in front of the Peshawar Journalists' Center and were joined by civil and political activists.

Sajid Ali, one of the protesters, told RFE/RL that the police officers were compelled to protest to put pressure on authorities and because police officers “are dying amid this terrorism and insecurity.”

Ali Daraz, another protester, said police officers want answers about how the explosives got into the compound and said he believes there were at least two suicide bombers because of the amount of destruction. Daraz added that there have been complaints for years about a lack of equipment to fight terrorists.

"It seems like there were many explosives used there because even two suicide bombers could not cause that much destruction," he told RFE/RL.

The attack in Peshawar, capital of the volatile Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, which borders Afghanistan, was one of the deadliest that targeted Pakistani security forces in recent years.

The interim government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has formed a team to investigate the attack, including how a major security breach could happen in a compound that houses intelligence and counterterrorism bureaus.

Eyewitnesses told Radio Mashaal that suicide bombers standing in the first row in the compound's mosque behind the imam detonated explosive vests as worshippers gathered for the afternoon prayers in the Police Line Mosque on January 30.

A commander for the Pakistani Taliban known as Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) initially claimed responsibility for the attack, but hours later, TTP spokesman Muhammad Khurasani denied involvement, saying it was not the group's policy to target mosques, seminaries, and religious places.

Ibrahim Kamil, a participant in the protest and a leading member of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, told RFE/RL that a number of policemen are now feeling insecure about their own security.

There have been dozens of attacks in recent years, but the January 30 attack was a different incident because "people who protect us are facing so much danger in their own mosque."

Kamil added that the investigation should determine how the assailants got past checkpoints to enter the building and the mosque.

With reporting by AFP

Bulgarian Parliament Passes Resolution Declaring Soviet-Era Famine Genocide

The Bulgarian National Assembly voted 134-25 on February 1 on a resolution saying that any "denial, justification, or underestimation of this genocide flouts the memory of the millions of people who perished." (file photo)

The Bulgarian National Assembly has approved legislation declaring the 1932-33 famine caused by the policies of the Soviet government led by Joseph Stalin a genocide.

The decision came in a 134-25 vote on February 1 on a resolution backing the combined proposals of the Democratic Bulgaria and GERB parties.

The resolution says that any "denial, justification, or underestimation of this genocide flouts the memory of the millions of people who perished." It also calls for the last Saturday of November to be declared a day of honor and remembrance for the victims of the famine, known as the Holodomor.

Members of the far-right Vazrazhdane (Revival) party and Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) parliamentary groups, which often take pro-Russian positions, spoke against declaring the resolution.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy expressed gratitude to Bulgaria for declaring the Holodomor a genocide, saying on Twitter that the move "commemorates millions of Holodomor victims and restores historical justice."

Bulgaria’s gesture of solidarity "will always be remembered in Ukraine," he added.

Kyiv has urged the international community to officially declare the Holodomor a genocide as Ukraine confronts Moscow's ongoing full-scale invasion.

The Holodomor took place as Stalin's police units forced peasants in Ukraine to join collective farms by requisitioning their grain and other foodstuffs.

Historians say the failure to properly harvest crops in Ukraine in 1932 under Soviet mismanagement was the main cause of the famine.

It is estimated that up to 9 million people died as a result of executions, deportation, and starvation during the Stalin-era campaign.

The Bulgarian National Assembly's move comes six weeks after the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to recognize the famine as a genocide.

The resolution passed on December 15 called it an "artificial famine" caused by "a deliberate policy of the Soviet regime."

Kostadin Kostadinov, leader of the Vazrazhdane in the Bulgarian General Assembly, acknowledged that there was "a massacre by starvation of millions of people" in the Soviet Union in 1932-33, but he said the goal was not based on the victims' ethnicity, rather their class.

Borislav Gutsanov of the BSP opposed the proposal being put to a vote.

Earlier on February 1, the Vazrazhdane and BSP groups left the assembly hall, while their colleagues marked the day of appreciation and respect for the victims of the communist regime in Bulgaria.

With reporting by AFP

New U.S. Sanctions Target Russian Arms Trader's Global Network, Treasury Department Says

The U.S. Treasury Department in Washington, D.C.

The United States has imposed Russian-related sanctions on 22 individuals and entities in multiple countries that the U.S. Treasury Department says are part of a global network set up to evade previously announced sanctions targeting Russia’s defense industry.

The Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed the new sanctions on February 1, designating individuals and entities in the network, which OFAC said supports Russia’s military-industrial complex.

The actions are part of a strategy to target sanctions evasion efforts around the globe, expose facilitators, and ultimately limit Russia’s access to revenue needed to wage its war in Ukraine, the department said in a news release.

“Russia’s desperate attempts to utilize proxies to circumvent U.S. sanctions demonstrate that sanctions have made it much harder and costlier for Russia’s military-industrial complex to re-supply [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s war machine,” said Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo.

The network is led by Russian- and Cypriot-based arms dealer Igor Zimenkov, who has worked closely with his son, Jonatan Zimenkov, within the network to enable Russian defense sales to third-country governments, the department said.

The network has engaged in projects connected to Russian defense capabilities, including supplying high-technology devices, since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the Treasury said.

Certain members of the network have also supported sanctioned Russian defense entities Rosoboroneksport and State Corporation Rostec, which the Treasury said are key parts of Russia’s military-industrial complex.

Igor Zimenkov maintains close relationships with people associated with Rosoboroneksport and has provided information to Rostec personnel abroad, while Jonatan Zimenkov has maintained powers of attorney for companies in the Zimenkov network on behalf of his father, according to the Treasury.

They have additionally been involved in multiple deals for Russian cybersecurity and helicopter sales to South American countries and have engaged directly with Rosoboroneksport’s potential clients to enable sales of Russian defense materiel, according to the department.

Igor Zimenkov has also supported the Belarusian military-industrial complex by facilitating sales efforts in Latin America of Belarusian defense entity State Owned Foreign Trade Unitary Enterprise Belspetsvneshtechnika (BSVT). BSVT was previously designated for its links to the government of Belarus, as well as for operating in the defense and related materiel sector of the Belarus economy.

Among the members of the network were “front companies” used to funnel money within the network. These companies, which were also designated for sanctions, are based in Singapore, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Uzbekistan, and Israel. Several people associated with the companies also were designated.

The sanctions designations freeze any assets under U.S. jurisdiction held by the individuals and entities. They also inhibit their access to global financial markets and bar people based in the U.S. from dealing with them.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Bulgaria, Serbia Break Ground On Pipeline Aimed At Easing Russian Gas Dependence

Attending a groundbreaking ceremony in the Bulgarian town of Kostinbrod on February 1, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic shook hands where one end of the 170-kilometer link will be built. 

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev and his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic, have launched the construction of a gas pipeline that will link the two countries and help ease the region's dependence on Russian supplies, which have become less reliable amid Moscow's war against Ukraine.

Attending a groundbreaking ceremony in the Bulgarian town of Kostinbrod on February 1, the two leaders shook hands where one end of the 170-kilometer link -- 109 kilometers of which will run through Serbia -- will be built.

"This is a big thing, a European project. We will supply other countries via our country," Vucic said.

The link, which will have a capacity of 1.8 billion cubic meters of gas annually, will allow gas from Azerbaijan to flow all the way to Western Europe, while also giving Serbia access to liquefied natural gas coming through from ports in Greece.

"It gives new opportunities to the region through real diversification and security of deliveries," Radev added.

In a show of the link's regional importance, European Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson also attended the ceremony. The 85.5-million-euro project will receive 25 million euros from the European Investment Bank (EIB), as well as 49.6 million euros in co-financing by the European Union. Serbia will supply the rest of the funding needed to complete the pipeline.

Even before the effect of Moscow's invasion of Ukraine on gas supplies to Europe, Bulgaria and Serbia have tried to diversify from a deep reliance on Russian supplies.

In 2009, the two countries were hit hard by a dispute between Russia and Ukraine over pricing that slashed deliveries and left many in Europe cold over the winter.

Sofia then moved quickly to establish a link with Greece to begin accepting supplies from Azerbaijan.

That gas pipeline is part of a broad EU initiative called the Southern Gas Corridor, which aims to reduce Europe's dependence on Russian gas. The main source of supply would be the Shah Deniz gas field located in the Caspian Sea, in territory belonging to Azerbaijan.

While Bulgaria has been critical of Moscow's war in Ukraine, Serbia, a traditional ally of Russia, has maintained good relations.

Adviser To Iranian Sunni Leader Detained Over Comments On Protests

In a recent interview with RFE/RL’s Radio Farda, Molavi Abdulmajid criticized the government for creating an atmosphere of insecurity in Zahedan. (file photo)

A senior adviser to Molavi Abdolhamid, a spiritual leader for Iran’s Sunni Muslim population, has been arrested amid months of unrest in Iran sparked by the death of a young woman while she was detained by the notorious morality police for an alleged dress code violation.

According to Haalvsh, a group that monitors rights violations of the Sunni minority in Iran, Molavi Abdulmajid was arrested on January 30 in the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan and transferred a day later to a prison in the city of Mashhad. The relatives of the cleric have been told to follow up on his situation "with the Special Clerical Court," the report adds.

The state news agency IRNA confirmed Abdulmajid's arrest and quoted an informed source saying he was accused of "numerous communications with foreign people and media, and distorting public opinion."

Zahedan has been a hotbed for unrest since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was in police custody for allegedly wearing her head scarf improperly. The protests grew even larger following the news of the alleged sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl by the Chabahar police commander.

On September 30, people in the southeastern Iranian city took to the streets demanding accountability. They were met with a violent and bloody response from security forces that had become known as Bloody Friday. Almost 100 people were killed and hundreds more injured in the clash.

In a January 19 interview with RFE/RL’s Radio Farda, Abdulmajid criticized the government for creating an atmosphere of insecurity in Zahedan and said the protests in the city will continue "until the issue of Bloody Friday and the people of Zahedan who were killed and injured is resolved."

Abdolhamid had said previously that senior officials, including Khamenei, were "responsible" for the killing of protesters during the so-called Bloody Friday massacre. He also called for an immediate referendum with the presence of international observers to "change policies based on the wishes of the people."

The Iranian government has unleashed a brutal crackdown on weeks of unrest -- one of the deepest challenges to the Islamic regime since the revolution in 1979 -- that erupted following the September 16 death of Amini.

Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the population in Sistan-Baluchistan Province in southeastern Iran where Abdolhamid is based but account for only about 10 percent of the population in Shi'a-dominated Iran overall.

Since Amini's death, more than 500 people have been killed in the police crackdown, according to rights groups. Several thousand more have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Pakistan Court Grants Bail To Imran Khan Aide

Police officials escort the Pakistan's former information minister Fawad Chaudhry (center) to present him before a court in Lahore on January 25, 2023.

An aide to former prime minister Imran Khan was granted bail on February 1, a week after being arrested for allegedly harassing election commission officials. Fawad Chaudhry, who was information minister under Khan, had been arrested in a predawn raid on his home in the eastern city of Lahore. "A lower court in Islamabad granted bail to Fawad Chaudhry against surety bonds of 20,000 rupees ($75) and on condition that such words won't be repeated again," a spokesman of his Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) party said. His lawyer Faisal Chaudhry confirmed the details to reporters outside court.

Azerbaijan Reportedly Detains Dozens Suspected Of Spying For Iran

Law enforcement bodies have neither confirmed nor rejected the reports. (file photo)

Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry has detained around 40 people it suspects of being part of an Iranian spy network that used religion to push pro-Iranian propaganda.

Local media reported on February 1 that the suspects were arrested in Baku and other regions of the country as a result of the operation conducted by the ministry. Some reports a day earlier put the number of people detained at seven.

Law enforcement bodies have neither confirmed nor rejected the reports.

Lawmaker Elman Mammadov, a member of the parliamentary Defense, Security, and Anti-Corruption Committee, accused Iran of being "quite active" in defending Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for many years.

"I can't say whether it is a network or not, but there are such people. Even in certain media organizations and social networks, there are such people who from time to time speak in favor of Iran and against us express their opinions," he said.

Tehran has not commented on the reports.

Azer Qasimli, the director of the Baku-based Political Management Institute, said that while Iranian spies were most likely operating in the country, Russia has a bigger undercover network in the country.

Still, he said Azerbaijani authorities had to be careful, as "Iran is a state that has used terrorism in different countries and is characterized by very aggressive actions."

"It can be dangerous from this point of view," he added.

Relations between Iran and Azerbaijan appeared relatively calm until recent days.

Baku ordered the evacuation of staff and family members from its embassy in Iran on January 29, two days after a gunman shot dead a security guard and wounded two other people at the embassy in an attack Baku branded an "act of terrorism."

Police arrested a suspect and Iranian authorities have condemned the January 27 incident. They have said the suspect appeared to have had a personal, not a political, motive for the attack.

Turkey 'Looks Positively' On Finland's NATO Bid But Not On Sweden's

Protesters demonstrate against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Sweden's NATO bid in a rally arranged by the Kurdish Democratic Society Center in Stockholm on January 21.

Turkey looks positively on Finland's application for NATO membership, but does not support Sweden's bid, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on February 1. "Sweden should not bother to try at this point. We will not say 'yes' to their NATO application as long as they allow burning of the Koran," Erdogan said in a speech to his party's deputies in parliament. Erdogan signaled on January 29 that Ankara could agree to Finland joining NATO ahead of Sweden and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on January 30 made similar statements. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Pakistani Inflation Rises To 48-Year High As IMF Visits

Inflation has risen to a 48-year high in crisis-hit Pakistan, where the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is visiting for urgent talks, according to data released on February 1 by the country's statistics bureau. Year-on-year inflation in January 2023 was recorded at 27.55 percent, the highest since May 1975, with thousands of containers of imports held up at Karachi port. Pakistan's economy is in dire straits, stricken by a balance-of-payments crisis while it attempts to service high amounts of external debt.

Latvia Says It Would Not Send Athletes To Olympics If Russia, Belarus Are Allowed To Compete

Russia's Aleksandr Zuev (left) fights for the ball with Latvia's Karlis Lasmanis during the men's gold medal 3x3 basketball final match during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in July 2021.

Latvia wouldn't send athletes to an Olympic Games that included Russian and Belarusian nationals while the invasion in Ukraine is ongoing, a spokesperson for the country's Olympic Committee said on February 1. The International Olympic Committee said last week it was open to including Russian and Belarusian athletes as neutrals at the 2024 Paris Games and has opened a door to them competing in qualifiers. "If we need to make a decision now, of course we will not go to such competition," the spokesperson told Reuters, adding that the situation in Ukraine may change before the Games are held. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

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